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UTSA professor champions new approaches to criminal justice

Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert

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(Oct. 28, 2014) -- A criminal justice scholar at The University of Texas at San Antonio wants to change how lawmakers and the public think about criminal justice in the United States.

For more than a decade, Michael Gilbert, an associate professor in the UTSA Department of Criminal Justice, has been championing community justice and restorative justice as better alternatives to the formal criminal justice systems currently in place. He believes that these distinct but complementary processes can be implemented large-scale, and in individual cases, to assist victims in the healing of societal harms in ways that the traditional justice system has not been able to help.

In a new paper published for European audiences in Restorative Justice: International Journal, Gilbert outlines the history, present and future of community justice and restorative justice, two radical, relations-driven approaches to attaining justice. The paper also describes the ways they could shape the U.S. criminal justice system over the next decade.

"Justice in the 21st century must do more than simply arrest and punish," said Gilbert. "It must prevent crime by understanding the impetus for crime. It must heal those harmed by crime in ways that strengthen and improve relationships and communities. It must meaningfully address community problems that create environments where street crimes flourish."

Restorative justice is victim-sensitive and focuses on repairing harms to victims and their communities through dialogue and restorative practices. Rather than sentence a non-violent offender with jail time, the offender and victims might work together to understand the true harms committed and rebuild broken relationships.

Community justice focuses on preventing crime by addressing local problems in ways that improve the quality of life of communities, particularly in high-crime areas. Law enforcement and justice agencies work with communities to identify key concerns, address underlying societal issues and ensure cultural sensitivity while providing assistance.

"Restorative justice and community justice operate across societal and policy spectrums to repair harms caused by incivilities, crime, injustice and inequality," he added. "These processes are about addressing problems through respect and mutuality between formal criminal justice systems and the communities they are supposed to help. It is a break in tradition that is sorely needed."

Gilbert is a published author and leading scholar in the field of restorative and community justice. He is the director of the UTSA Office of Community and Restorative Justice (OCRJ) housed in the College of Public Policy (COPP) Policy Studies Center. He also is executive director of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice (NACRJ), which he established in 2012.

Through the NACRJ and the OCRJ, Gilbert and his fellow restorative justice proponents have begun to create more meaningful conversations at the policy level about the benefits of eschewing traditional criminal justice methods for, in Gilbert's words, more constructive means of providing justice.

Earlier this year, the NACRJ sent the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Criminal Justice Committee of the American Bar Association a policy statement advocating for the inclusion of restorative and community justice practices.

The UTSA Office of Community and Restorative Justice is dedicated to expanding the use of non-traditional forms of justice to create safe and livable communities. The office offers a wide range of training opportunities and consulting services related to community and restorative justice.

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For more information, visit the UTSA Office of Community and Restorative Justice website.

The National Association of Community and Restorative Justice advocates for supportive public policies for restorative and community justice so that these practices can become mainstream. For more information, visit the NACRJ website.

Learn more about the UTSA Department of Criminal Justice and the UTSA College of Public Policy.

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